Without efficient waste management, any countries can easily find themselves in a trash crisis, regardless of how developed they are. This is because the amount of waste from households, hospitals, factories, agricultural activity, and technological development has been rising steadily and is expected to swell from 2.01 billion tons in 2016 to to 3.4 billion tons in 2050 — a 70% hike in 32 years.
In the last few years, it is plastics that have been singled out. Movements against single-use plastics have exploded across the world, and newsfeeds are flooded with articles detailing tragic deaths of marine animals that have ingested plastic debris. These developments have reawakened eco-consciousness and prompted a significant portion of the world’s population to swear off single-use plastics. In fact, the movement has gained so much momentum that Collins Dictionary named ‘single-use’ its 2018 word of the year.
Waste management and measures to reduce single-use plastic are at the top of the agenda of various governments around the world. For instance, the European Union parliament has recently approved a move to enact bans on single-use plastics by 2021. Thailand has also laid down a timeline for different disposable plastic products, with cap seals, oxo-degradable plastics, and microbeads slated to be eliminated in 2019 and four more products set to be completely phased out by 2025.
As we work to rethink how we consume our resources, many have proposed a number of solutions. However, the idea that has risen to the forefront is the circular economy – a model that seeks to maximize the efficiency of resource management and keep raw materials, energy, and waste management in use for as long as possible or until they truly reach the end of their useful life.
The circular economy, therefore, is not simply a matter of recycling. Rather, it begins with designs that can be manufactured with minimum resources and maximize useful life. They should also allow maximum material recovery, possibly with proper storage and sorting on the user’s part. Any products that can no longer be used in their original forms should at the very least be convertible into fuels.
The circular economy model is also being picked up by manufacturers of various plastic products, with many brands adding value to used materials through design. A case in point is Freitag, which makes bags out of truck tarps. However, some go beyond simply reclaiming materials and design their products to be eco-friendly right from the beginning. For instance, under its new concept “Add to reduce,” P&G will be incorporating innovation into its products not only create a wow factor and create added value but also to alleviate or solve existing problems. Examples include containers that use less plastic but are just as durable, and detergents that use a smaller amount of chemicals to achieve the same cleaning power. P&G has also incubated the revolutionary DS3 technology, in which cleaning products are shrunk into compact swatches. Packed inside biodegradable packaging, these products eliminate unnecessities while remaining as effective as conventional counterparts.
In achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) stipulated in the ASEAN-UN Plan of Action 2016 – 2020, the Thai government has formulated a strategic plan to drive the country towards economic, social, and environmental sustainability. The Ministry of Industry, an organization playing a key role in prescribing policies related to plastic businesses, recognizes the significance of these policies and is working to ensure that they can be implemented. With these policies, the Ministry hopes to shift Thailand’s production structure towards a circular economy model to reduce environmental impact and encourage businesses to develop new products from domestic waste or used materials to create added economic value.
The Ministry of Industry has encouraged 35,228 businesses to join its Green Industry Program, signed a memorandum of understanding with the Federation of Thai Industries to promote the circular economy among its members, and founded a research and development center for recycling and urban mining technology. Furthermore, the Ministry has encouraged SMEs and communities to generate income from scrap materials, starting with factories in industrial estates across the country. The Ministry has also created an industrial waste database to allow entrepreneurs to procure materials they need from others, marking an important development in the manufacturing sector.
According to reports by the Plastics Institute of Thailand, an organization operating in support of the development of Thailand’s plastic industry, Thailand generates two million tons of waste per year, but only 500,000 tons is correctly recycled. Due to insufficient waste management and a lack of advocacy for waste sorting, most discarded plastic is not clean enough, and as a result, a huge portion does not head to recycling centers as it is not economically viable. Furthermore, the production technology that many small businesses are using is less advanced and uncertified, making it difficult for the government to provide necessary support. As it has been announced that Thailand will stop importing plastic waste completely by 2021, this is the best time to review how Thailand will manage and make the most of its plastic waste.
The circular economy will not spell doom for the plastic industry. Rather, this model will become a new companion to plastic business owners and enable them to innovate products that last longer and can be reused time and again, catering to the ever-increasing demand for eco-friendly products. This movement promises to make the world a better place, not only for humans but for all life on earth.